The Easy Difficulty Setting

In class today, on the topic of sexism in videogames, Jon closed with an anecdote about navigating his way out a building with heavy, cumbersome boxes. The unforeseen obstructions that littered his path made what should have been an easy trip into a complicated affair; one that needed to be travelled carefully and with planning.

This reminded me of a great article by science-fiction author John Scalzi: “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”.

In the article, Scalzi associates the navigation of life in our society with difficulty settings in a video game. In the video game known as the “Real World”, Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting there is. As he puts it, on this setting:

“The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.”

At the beginning of the “Real World”, you get a randomly generated selection of points to attribute to your character (such as in a game like Skyrim). These points may represent the wealth of the family you were born into, or just natural ability. While playing on the lowest difficulty setting, a straight white male (STM) may start the game with very few points. The STM may therefore struggle to progress in the game as fast as some other players playing on a higher difficulty setting, but who began the game with more points.

No matter what though, the game is still easier on the lowest difficulty setting.

After posting this article, Scalzi encountered pushback. Many readers were upset with the notion. Some, apparently, declared that they would never write anything he wrote again.

In a follow-up post, Scalzi recounted some of the arguments he received in opposition to his thesis. It seems that many readers were quite defensive at the notion that they had been playing on “easy” all along.

I’m sure the science-fiction fans that make up much of Scalzi’s readers largely overlap with those videogame fans and creators that bristle at the notion that sexism may still be embedded within their community. As we discussed today, addressing these topics can put those who identify with a culture on the defensive. But addressing these topics is how we move forward.